Thursday, August 19, 2010

Human Experiment

As many of you who know me have come to learn, I have some mysterious health issues. Nothing serious --- at least I don't think so. But ever since I entered my thirties, I've noticed a major decline in my health. I can't really pin-point it with great specificity, but I can say that
ever since I had my gallbladder removed in April 2003, it's been a massive struggle for me.

It's easy for me to blame that laparoscopic cholecystectomy on everything. Hey, let's blame that for the BP oil spill too. Why not? Every malady I've had since April 2003 I've attributed to that tiny, missing organ. But what I'm just starting to realize is that the blame lies with me. I've basically punished my body ever since I was a kid, either by overeating, or eating ridiculous things, or not exercising, or a combination of all of those. And now it's payback time. My entire body is going Jean-Claude Van Damme on me.

I recall being in 6th grade, staying up late at night to watch David Letterman (yes, I was a weird kid and probably the only 11-year old that crept out of bed to watch Letterman). During the commercials, I'd comb through the kitchen looking for snacks. I ate everything from cookies, to Tastycakes, to pepperoni, to Bisquick (yes, I'd eat this out of the box --- I hang my head in shame), to bread with mayo on it, to get the idea. Other times, I'd be playing Atari 2600 while devouring an entire bag of cheese curls while washing it down with Frank's pineapple soda. When I hit age 15, my gastrointestinal system revolted on an epic scale. Gee, I wonder why? I spent most of my high-school years getting upper and lower GIs, barium enemas (the worst physical test that a human being can ever experience), ultrasounds, etc. I lived in fear of stomach distress and spent most of the time in the house. When I did manage enough courage to go out, I carried Kaopectate, Tums, Maalox, Donnagel, and Pepto Bismal in my bag without fail. I was a walking pharmacy. There was a time when I knew the location of nearly every public rest room in center city Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. How sad is that?

Is it any real surprise that I had to have my gallbladder removed or that I have peculiar health problems today?

In the last 4 years or so, I've noticed other issues creeping up that I never experienced before, such as fatigue, joint pain, swelling, hair loss, depression, weakness, back pain, insomnia, and migraines, severe allergies, and tonsillitis, to name a few. I had lost about 60 pounds between January 1999 and August 2000, which I kept off for about 4 years, but now have pretty much all gained back, as of today. Aside from being mentally & emotionally distressing, this added weight exacerbates many of the physical problems I mentioned. I'm nearing 40 and I need to figure out what's wrong with me asap. Not that 40 is ancient --- I certainly don't think any ostensibly normal, "healthy" 40-year old should feel as rotten as I do --- but it's not 21 either. I need a better, more healthful approach to the last half of my life.

All that being said, I've been playing detective with food over the last few weeks. Summertime is always bad for me. Actually, once May rolls around, it's very difficult for me to eat well. Between May & December life becomes a never-ending stream of birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, holidays, work functions, family visits, etc. But for some reason, this summer has been a little epiphany. Never have I been more acutely aware of the amount of sugar that goes into my body. It's scary and a little disgusting. I started noticing that I was feeling exceptionally BAD a few weeks ago. And then I realized that the amount of sugar that I consumed during that time period was off the charts. I sensed a correlation.Now when I say sugar, I mean sugar or corn syrup, etc. I don't mean fruit or bread or pasta. Reading nutrition labels and scouring ingredient lists on packaged foods was something I used to do regularly, back in my Weight Watcher's days. It's really disheartening to see that a 6-ounce cup of YoPlait light yogurt has 15 grams of sugar in it. HOW? It's just a little cup of yogurt for criminy's sake! I just looked on the American Heart Association's website for information on the recommended amount of added sugar that a normal, adult female should be eating per day:

"The American Heart Association recommends limiting the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calories allowance. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar [which is about 25 grams]. "

Uh...yeah. I've been eating like 4x this much sugar a day, at least. Usually I would eat a breakfast bar around 10:00 am (which has 11 grams of sugar) coupled with a 12 oz cup of coffee. Then lunch was yogurt and a granola bar with fruit. Well the yogurt has 15 grams of sugar and the granola bar I usually eat has 12. Then at about 2:30-3:00 I was starving and wanted to snack on something. So I'd eat either a couple mini York Peppermint Patties (like 2 or 3) or another granola bar type thing. So each of the mini Peppermint Patties has 9 grams of sugar. Eating 2 means 18 grams of sugar. That is insane. Then dinner was whatever I could find in the house or we order something out (another awful habit I'm trying to break). This is a lot of sugar to eat during the day (added up it totals 56 grams) and that's not even including dinner. But if you think that's bad, the REAL problem is after dinner. I feel like my dinner never satisfies me. So I end up snacking a lot between 6:30 and 10:00 pm. Mostly stupid, bad crap like cookies or chocolate-covered raisins (half a box of Raisinets has 27 grams of sugar) or a Smart Ones dessert cup (I linked my favorite one) or sometimes ALL of those things and even more. So that by the time I am hitting the pillow at night I've consumed at least 100 grams of sugar --- added, white, non-naturally occurring sugar --- in any given day, probably well over. This kind of reckless eating is taking its toll on my aging body. So I decided a week ago to stop eating this kind of sugar. I'm not going all NO-CARB and I won't ever do that. I don't think I'll even stop eating pasta or corn or white breads (although I will probably make better choices). At least for now, I am just cutting out foods that have too much refined sugar in them.

I read a lot online about sugar sensitivity and addiction. And I fall into both categories. One very eye-opening thing I read was that eating too much sugar causes your body to go into "starvation mode" overnight. The sugar elicits a brain response similar to that of a person going through a time of physical stress, such as starvation. It gives a false sense of security and well-being. (The extreme of this feeling is what happens to people at the end of their lives, especially if they die during a trauma. I'm sure you've heard of people who have "near death" experiences reporting feeling a calm, peaceful presence or warmth.) Anyway, as a result of excessive sugar consumption, people with sugar addiction almost never eat breakfast. In fact, the thought of eating first thing in the morning seems repulsive. So they don't eat. Then by 10:30 am they crash and grab the first thing they can, usually something sweet because it starts giving that false sense of security. And the cycle continues. This is me, 100%.

Since cutting sugar, I've woken up the last 3 days HUNGRY and wanting to eat. In fact, I woke up on Tuesday feeling almost ravenously hungry. I've been told by a nutritionist and I've read from several sources that one should eat within an hour of waking and that it should be a protein and a complex carbohydrate. So I've been eating a hard-boiled egg and a banana over the last couple of mornings. I must say that I feel good until nearly lunchtime, which is a huge switch for me. I've been much less inclined to want to eat sweet things and I feel satisfied with meals in general. I've been sleeping more soundly and waking feeling rested. I generally feel less fatigued and my joints seem to hurt less. All in all, positive things! And it's only been about a week.

Now the downside...

I am going through some withdrawal symptoms. For instance, I woke up not only hungry the last couple of days, but also soaking wet with sweat. Seriously, I have been sweating like a pig. I hope that ends soon. I also had what felt like flu symptoms on Monday: seriously bad chills, fever, body aches, sore throat. They have subsided, and I now have sinus congestion and sneezing. My histamines have kicked in and are fighting a perceived threat. I read that this was a common symptom of sugar withdrawal. Sugar can really affect your immune system in a bad way, especially if you're like me and have a sensitivity to it. This could be why I've seemed to be prone to an abnormally high number of sinus and throat infections over the last 3-4 years.

I can't believe it's taken me years and years to figure this out. How dense can a person be?

Ok so what HAVE I been eating? Well, surprisingly, I'm eating less food overall, yet feeling more satisfied. As I mentioned, I've been eating a hard-boiled egg and a piece of fruit nearly every morning. Over the last weekend I ate mini shredded wheat with almond milk** and slices of banana. Lunch has been hummus and whole-wheat pita with either carrots or grape tomatoes and a piece of fruit, sometimes a few slices of a light cheese as well OR tuna on stone-ground wheat crackers with the carrots &/or tomatoes and fruit. Dinner is a little more challenging for me. Last night I ate cheese ravioli with just olive oil and basil as the sauce. It was actually very tasty. Other nights I've made eggs, or pierogies, or have had fish with brown rice or I've eaten the hummus with pita combo. Dinner is accompanied by a vegetable and usually a piece of fruit afterward. I have to say honestly, I haven't felt really "snacky" in the evenings lately. But the few times I have felt little peckish I've eaten fruit, or crackers with cheese or a little butter on them, or a few pretzels, or a few almonds & cashews (nuts sometimes wreak havoc on my skin, so I try to avoid them, usually). Earlier in my experiment, I made wheat toast with some sugar-free strawberry preserves on them. But now, I really don't crave that level of sweetness.
I'm usually drinking water or hot tea (love me some peppermint or chamomile). I may have had a glass of Diet Coke once or twice. Astonishingly, I seemed to have also been able to put my caffeine addiction behind me. I haven't had or wanted a cup of coffee in over a week.

In my online research over the last several days, I stumbled across the following advertisements for sugar, brought to you by Sugar Information, Inc. How crazy are these?:

WHAAAAT? So sugar causes one to UNDEReat? Uh huh. And it's a good idea to eat a sugary and probably fatty ice-cream cone so that you won't eat your normal mealtime food, which might actually have some nutritional value? Sure.

And this one....
The "Note to Mothers:" at the bottom right reads:
Exhaustion may be dangerous -- especially to children who haven't learned to avoid it by pacing themselves. Exhaustion opens the door a little wider to the bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait. Sugar puts back energy fast -- offsets exhaustion. Synthetic sweeteners put back nothing. Energy is the first requirement of life. Play safe with your young ones -- make sure they get sugar every day.

Make sure they get sugar every day??? Welcome to 1966.

Or how about this delightful ad from the Soda Pop Board of America?

My mind is officially blown.

** A note about almond milk: I adore it. I went to a nutritionist --- very briefly--- a few years ago and she suggested unsweetened almond milk as a good cow-milk substitute for me. I asked about soy milk, since that's what everyone seems to drink as a cow-milk substitute. She mentioned that for what I was experiencing in my body, soy could actually aggravate it and make it worse. I already have higher levels of estrogen than most women, so soy was not a good choice for me. I continue using the almond milk because I think it tastes awesome. It's also very low fat and low calorie too. This is the one I use. I highly recommend it for folks who have sensitivity to dairy and who may not like the taste of soy.


Bubblesknits said...

Those ads are just...boggling. Especially the soda one! I'm in the dental field and I can only imagine what those kids' teeth looked like by the age of 5. ::shudder::

Good luck with your new eating habits! I've made some changes myself and, like you, have noticed that I feel better. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Gina! (It's Jen.) :)

Fascinating experiment! Sounds like the results are starting to show, and those ads are tremendously, alarmingly hilarious. I think I need to eat more bananas lately. My legs have been cramping and stuff and I think I'm lacking a bit in potassium. I overdid it on bananas years ago and lost my taste for them, but I think they'll help me in my quest to be healthy, too. Thanks for the reminder and keep up the good work!

Katie J said...

Gina, I may have to jump on the non-sugar boat myself. Of course, I'm currently in Belgium where we just bought a huge box of chocolate. That's what sharing is for, right?

Seriously, I think that may be a huge part of my problem too. Thanks for sharing and inspiring us!

Beth said...

Thanks, Gina. It sounds you're on the right track. My household could benefit from looking at the foods we eat. Each morning since I've read your post, I've thought protein and carb.

Gina said...

Thanks so much, everyone, for all your words of encouragement!


Jenn said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and was intrigued with the post about removing sugar from your diet. is a great website that you might find helpful in many ways:
Anyway good luck with your journey to be sugar-free...